Africa has come into the spotlight over the past months as a destination for LGBT travelers, despite the fact that many countries on the continent are adopting strict anti-gay regulations.

The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) recently announced it is partnering with World Travel Market Africa (WTM Africa) 2015 to bring awareness and visibility to LGBT travel in Africa. WTM Africa will take place in Cape Town, South Africa, from April 15 to 17. The organization has also announced that it will be bringing its annual global convention to Cape Town in 2016.

IGLTA President and CEO John Tanzella explains that although Africa has its challenges when it comes to LGBT issues, the partnership with WTM Africa is a wonderful opportunity to provide much-needed information on LGBT travel to the African tourism industry. Says Tanzella: “We've never held the conference in Africa, and South Africa is clearly the standout destination on the continent for LGBT rights and tourism. Cape Town, well-known as the oasis of gay friendliness in Africa, is a beautiful destination, and we’re looking forward to engaging with WTM Africa in 2015 and carrying that relationship forward.”

South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, is indeed recognized among the top gay travel destinations in the world;  the most recent LGBT2020 survey listed the city 16th among its “World's Top 20 Intended Destinations for LGBT Travel” for 2015. South Africa’s Mother City offers a great concentration of “pink venues” along the Atlantic seaboard, and trendy places such as De Waterkant Village are popular hangouts for members of the LGBT community. South Africa also has a liberal constitution, and same-sex marriages are legal, which makes Cape Town a desirable wedding/honeymoon destination.

However, while South Africa is quite liberal in its acceptance of the LGBT community, other countries in Africa take a much more conservative stance. But Josef Gerstmayr, marketing director for Namibia JJ Tours, points out that although homosexuality is illegal under Namibia's constitution, the country also promotes human rights, which ensure safety for all human beings regardless of their sexual orientation. According to Gerstmayr, there are a number of gay-owned and gay-friendly tourist establishments in Namibia. He adds LGBT travelers are warmly welcomed throughout the country.

Uganda has also come under fire for its draconian views on homosexuality. In the beginning of last year, Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law, legislation that could see gays jailed for life. Although tourism officials from Uganda have insisted that gay tourists should still feel safe in the country and the controversial law was eventually annulled in August last year, the country’s tourism reputation suffered a serious blow.

Jody Cole, owner of Wild Rainbow African Safaris, explains Wild Rainbow African Safaris canceled its Uganda gorilla trip as a result of the passing of the anti-homosexuality law. “As great lovers and supporters of the wildlife, culture and spirit of Africa, we are very disappointed and saddened by the passage and signing of this draconian law,” she said, adding that the safety and comfort of guests is the No. 1 priority.
 

Tanzella adds, however, that no matter what destination in the world travelers are visiting and regardless of their sexual orientation, they need to be aware of the local laws and be sensitive to cultural differences.

“The best way to be a safe traveler is to be an educated traveler. We'd never say to avoid a trip that you really want to take because of your sexual orientation, but you may have to be more mindful of how you move through destinations such as Uganda.”
 

Cole agrees that Africa can offer a rewarding and safe travel experience for LGBT travelers as long as they choose their destinations thoughtfully, take the necessary precautions and work with a tour operator or other expert who knows the continent well.

She says: “When I have my opening dinner with my guests, I mention that it is prudent to recognize that we are in a country with different laws than ours and that this is a different culture. It is a good idea to honor the local laws and be discrete. Most everyone is totally cool with that.”
 

According to Cole, during a wildlife safari, there is seldom any local interaction, which means there is no threat from the local way of life. She adds that if tourists cross the invisible line from tourist activities to local activities, they could be recognized as a possible target. “However, in the 10 years as a safari company and the seven years prior to that traveling in Africa, I have not had any ill-intended or uncomfortable interactions re: anti-gay sentiments,” she says.

For travel agents who are faced with questions from LGBT clients about Africa, Tanzella advises them to work with IGLTA member businesses or other tour operators that are familiar with the sensitive issues surrounding LGBT travel in Africa so they can feel confident their clients will be in good hands. He adds: “As for tips to travelers, the U.S. Department of State has a helpful website: travel.state.gov/LGBT

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